PINELLAS PARK — The vehicles are small: a Segway, a Smart Car and a canvas-topped Polaris sport utility vehicle. But police Officer David Plageman, assigned to the city's newest patrol unit, calls it "community policing on steroids.''
The seven-person unit is an experiment targeting the city's redevelopment area. The area extends for three blocks on each side of Park Boulevard from U.S. 19 to 66th Street N. It also takes in the three-block area on either side of 49th Street N immediately north and south of Park Boulevard.
The duties in some respects, he said, are those of a community police officer — get out and get to know the people and the beat. But it's much more because it includes duties that aren't normally a cop's job — such as being on the lookout for a vacant storefront that would be perfect for a specific business that wants to locate in the district.
And the new vehicles open up new possibilities, whether it's a Segway in a movie theater lobby or the SUV navigating through the woods to a homeless camp. They also tweak the public's perception of the police.
"For some reason, you're not viewed as a police officer when you're on the Segway," said police Officer Daniel Sosa-Jones.
But the real beauty of the Segways is as a time saver, said Officer Kyle Conner. An officer can easily zip from one place to another without worrying about finding a place to park. Being elevated means being able to see over fences to spot potential problems or see over people's heads during a crowded night at the Shoppes at Park Place.
The toys and the spiffy new uniforms — black short-sleeved sports shirts — are designed to help make officers more approachable, to break the ice and to make patrol easier, said Capt. Mike Haworth, who came up with the idea for a patrol dedicated to the area.
When businesses are successful, the community is successful, Haworth said. For the patrol officers, that could take the form of cleaning up graffiti, making sure the homeless have a shelter that will get them off the streets, or could entail organizing a group effort of many city departments to get something accomplished.
The unit is funded by a $1 million federal stimulus grant that Pinellas Park received last year. The city's proposal was one of about 1,000 chosen from about 7,700 that were submitted.
"We're really doing a lot to show people we care about our downtown community," said Officer Steve Vangeli. Vangeli has been the Pinellas Park Police Department's homeless outreach officer for the past several years. Because much of his work centers in the redevelopment area, he was moved to the new team.
The remainder of the team was handpicked from veteran officers who applied for the job. Once chosen, the city moved them out of the department into separate digs at 6990 49th St. N. They've also been given training in "Business 101," a kind of seminar with some city business owners to find out what goes into making a successful business.
Although it's early yet, the officers are enthusiastic about their new duties and their ability to relate to people.
"I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store now," Daniel Butterworth said. A traditional patrol officer's life is call driven, he said. But this is driven by the needs of the people the officers talk to and enables officers to be problem solvers, he said.
It's early yet to know if business owners and residents will embrace the new patrol. So, far, Haworth said, the reaction has been good.
But at least one business owner is neutral on the idea.
Maria Chylewska, co-owner of Flamingo Dry Cleaners, 7613 49th St. N, said she's accustomed to Pinellas Park officers being friendly. And she's used to seeing them using transportation other than cars — members of the horse patrol stop on occasion, she said. The important thing, she said, is not so much the transportation but making sure the officer gets there fast when needed.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at (727) 893-8450 or [email protected]